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Overcoming Public Speaking Anxieties

Public speaking. Just the mention of those two words sends shreds of fear racing thru most folks.

Comedian Jerry Seinfeld once addressed the subject this way: “According to most studies, people’s number one fear is public speaking. Number two is death. Death is number two, does that sound right? This means to the average person, if you go to a funeral, you’re better off in the casket than doing the eulogy.”

Simply put in that context, public speaking should move down the list a bit in most people’s minds. Still, it is not something most look forward to engaging.

“There are two kinds of speakers,” is a quote attributed to Mark Twain. “Those that are nervous, and those that are lairs.”

 Helping to quell those stated fears is the mission of Toastmasters International, a group founded in 1924 and headquartered in Englewood, Colorado. The nonprofit educational organization teaches public speaking and leadership skills through a worldwide network of clubs numbering 14,700 in 144 countries.

Since 1963 the Williamsport Toastmasters Club has been helping area residents become more proficient in meeting the challenges of public speaking. The organization has announced they will be conducting a free six-week class open to interested individuals to be held on Wednesday evenings, January 25 thru March 1, from 6:00-8:00 pm, at the 505 Restaurant, 505 Washington Boulevard in Williamsport.

Seating is limited, and reservations to enroll in the class may be made by contacting Toastmasters Club leaders Phil Buehrer or Donna Miller. Buehrer can be reached at 570-326-6801 or by email at; Miller at 570-971-0098,

While it may seem strange to those who know me, I was once one of those folks that dreaded the thought of having to get up and speak before a group of people. But life’s experiences, some of them forced upon me, gave me the confidence to complete that task an unknown number of times along life’s highway.

Buehrer experienced similar emotions as he began his professional career.

“A long time ago, when I was first starting out in my career, I was concerned about having to stand up in front of folks and talk. I was in a management trainee program with the company I was with, and I knew that was going to be part of what I was going to be required to do, and I didn’t want to do it.

“I then enrolled to take a speech class at a community college, and I still was not comfortable when I had completed the course. So I ended up taking that same course three more times. It gave me opportunities to get up in front of the class and make presentations. I still had the butterflies, but those experiences gave me the sense I was getting the hang of it. It was about that time I discovered the Toastmasters organization, and that helped give me the foundation I needed to overcome the earlier fears of public speaking I had experienced.”

Miller’s early experiences were similar.

“Toastmasters is all about building confidence. When I was in high school, I became interested in several different activity groups but tended to shy away because I didn’t have the confidence to stand up in front of a group and recite a story without having notes. It terrified me. It was something I really wanted to do, but because of that fear, it took me quite a while before I was able to somewhat overcome that fear and join those groups. Looking back on my life and the things I have done makes me realize there are a lot of people out there with the same fear I had. Getting involved with Toastmasters is a way for me to help others just like I have been helped.”

Since getting involved with Toastmasters, the duo has delighted in helping others overcome the dreaded public speaking dilemma.

“Public speaking can be a learned skill, but throughout my entire life, there have been instances when I’ve felt pretty comfortable about speaking. However, there have been other occasions when you’re thrown into a situation where you are outside of your comfort zone,” Buehrer explained.

“What I’ve discovered is there is always going to be some level of tension regarding public speaking. It is something you have to keep working at to both keep your edge and heighten your internal comfort in doing so. If you stop doing it because of fear or apprehension, it becomes very hard to get back into it.”

Those involved in education or coaching are familiar with those “light bulb moments” when the student or player finally comprehends what he/she is being taught and begins to master the activity.

“Those “light bulb moments” are a big part of what we are doing,” Buehrer added. “Being a mentor to somebody is as important as being able to accomplish something yourself. It is like watching your child when they first learn how to ride a bike or be in a school play. You are so proud of what they have accomplished. That is the same kind of feeling you get when you watch a Toastmasters class member blossom as they develop public speaking skills. It gives you a really good feeling to know you’ve had a part of that.”

“During my early professional career, I didn’t have responsibilities to speak in front of groups. But I later took a job in industry, and my duties required me to give presentations to employee groups,” related Miller. “I realized I could do better at that and learned about Toastmasters. I had never heard of the organization, so I did a little research and decided to join that group. As an adult, I never had a fear about speaking to groups, but the things I learned from Toastmasters gave me confidence and helped me develop the skills I needed.

“Toastmasters is not an organization meant only for business people or organizations. It helps people adapt and hone in on conversational skills. If you are in a business, that’s wonderful, but we want this class to be all-encompassing for anyone. Even in social settings, if you are at a dinner or party or meeting with people, you don’t know you want to be able to have conversational skills.”

Toastmasters classes are intentionally kept small, and the interaction and camaraderie of the group provide attendees chances to evaluate each other’s presentations in a constructive, friendly atmosphere.

Asked what advice she would give to individuals desiring to strengthen their public speaking skills, Miller was quick to reply.

“To anyone who may feel they are timid, afraid, or don’t like to talk in front of people, I would urge them to give it a try. Give it a try. Come to the first class.

“One thing we stress to the class is that we don’t want anyone to feel like they are under any pressure. You are among friends. In our classes, we begin by using various techniques to help people feel comfortable. It is a case of taking baby steps toward your goal. If you’ve wanted to be able to do public speaking, take little baby steps with us. We’ll walk right alongside you to help you reach that goal. We want to give people encouragement.”

More information on joining upcoming Toastmasters classes can be obtained from Buehrer or Miller at the contact information listed above in this story.